Auburn Spotlight, Madison Chandler

"The educational sessions make a large impact because most people have never been in contact with the kind of knowledge provided."
Madison Chandler
Doctoral Student, Pharmaceutical Sciences

Spotlight Interview

One Auburn University graduate student is taking her passion for others to the next level. Madison Chandler, a doctoral pharmaceutical sciences student, continuously works to identify mutations in certain cancer risk genes that cause Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome. 

Eighteen years ago, Chandler discovered her desire to improve the health of others when her uncle was diagnosed with clival chordoma, a deadly disease with a life expectancy of seven to nine years after diagnosis. Despite statistics, Chandler’s uncle is still alive. After witnessing her uncle battle a life-threatening disease, she decided to pursue an education in drug discovery and development. 

Throughout her time as a student, Chandler’s research has focused on fighting deadly disease, but more specifically, finding ways to fight cancer genetics, predominantly in African American women in Alabama. 

Much of the research currently published on cancer genetics focuses on individuals of European descent. Chandler aspires to expand the information known about cancer genetics in other ethnicities to address cancer disparity issues. Many of those disparities can be attributed to social economic factors; however, biological factors can play a significant role.  

“African American women have a higher incidence rate of breast cancer under the age of 40, which is a hallmark of hereditary breast cancer," Chandler said. 

According to Chandler, this marker leads to the belief that such disparities are likely a result of genetic risk factors. 

Chandler’s native Alabama is one of the most medically underserved areas in the United States, which makes it a great place for her to conduct research. Chandler must engage volunteers throughout certain areas before she can run tests and collect data, but the first step to getting volunteers is by holding educational sessions. The information presented during the educational sessions is straightforward and allows participants to engage in the presentation and ask questions in what she hopes is a non-intimidating environment. 

“The educational sessions make a large impact because most people have never been in contact with the kind of knowledge provided, and if they have, it’s in a complex brochure provided by their doctor,” Chandler said. 

Once people have attended an educational session, they are more knowledgeable on breast cancer risk genes and they spread the word to family and friends, creating a large network. 

Educational sessions also help establish a mutual trust and open up the opportunity for people in the community to be involved in the research. 

“The trust building comes into play in the community based recruitment,” said Chandler. “We meet with patient advocates and other prominent members in certain communities who know many people, or breast cancer awareness groups. Through that, there is a trust established on both sides.” 

With the trust that is established, Chandler and her major professor, Nancy Merner, are able to attend a number of breast cancer awareness events, such as Relay for Life, with the mobile Gene Machine and gain volunteers to be part of the research. 

The Gene Machine is a pink bus that contains all the equipment necessary for Chandler to run tests and conduct research. The unique bus makes testing more convenient for Chandler and her patients. Members of the Merner Lab take the bus to patients’ locations. Instead of having to unload everything and take it inside, the patients are able to step inside the bus and experience what is similar to a room at the doctor’s office. Chandler acknowledges that having the bus is much less time consuming for the patients. 

“We can still travel to the patients so it is convenient for them, but we don’t have to unload all of our stuff and pack it back up, which would take up much of the participants’ time,” said Chandler. 

When she first began her research with Merner, the two knew they needed something to easily transport all of their equipment. While brainstorming ideas, they talked about how a bus would allow them to take everything needed for recruitment without having to make multiple trips to load and unload the car. At first, the discussion was somewhat of a joke, until they found a bus for sale — and bought it. 

The Gene Machine made its debut earlier this year at the A-Day football game. It is now being used to transport and recruit patients for cancer risk gene testing. 

In order to test for cancer risk genes, Chandler does a targeted, custom-designed gene panel that captures 87 known and candidate breast cancer risk genes. Following the gene panel, next generation sequencing is carried out by HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama. 

Chandler enjoys working with genetics and would love to do a medical genetics post-doc at a certified institution. Eventually, she hopes to become board-certified to run a clinical genetics lab in a hospital. Chandler took home the first-place title of the Three Minute Thesis competition held at Auburn in November 2016, going on to present her research at the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools in Annapolis, Maryland. 

Chandler’s ultimate goal is to identify a novel risk that increases a particular populations’ risk of breast cancer. With her passion for helping others and dedication to her research, Chandler can achieve anything she puts her mind to.